Reviving Ophelia

By Cassie Title

i’ve been hearing lists of names since nursery school. We would sing them with the cantor: Elohei Avraham, Elohei Yitz-hak, v’Elohei Ya-ah-kov. The sanctuary was mahogany pews and wood paneled walls and elegant white candles dripping wax. There were stairs there, special stairs, carpeted in deep blue, the same color as the bimah they held up. There were sandy bricks on the wall behind the bimah, behind the ark and the Torahs and the white curtain that covered them.

There were more lists of names: Elohei Sarah, Elohei Rivkah, Elohei Leah, v’Elohei Ra-hel. We’d sing them with the cantor. There were plaques on the walls, too: hundreds of golden tiles with names that seemed both familiar but not quite modern, like a generation removed, names like Edythe Hershman and Sid Schlossman and Isaac Weisman. We would sing more songs and read more prayers and recite things from memory. We would open our siddurs and press the smooth pages down. If we dropped the siddur, we’d have to kiss it after picking it up. The rabbi wouldn’t say anything, but we knew that God was watching.

Of course, we didn’t know what God was. We knew he had many names: Adonai, Elohim, Lord, Yahweh (which we weren’t allowed to say). We knew he wanted us to read the Torah, and to say blessings, and to drink grape juice from shiny, silver Kiddish cups. We knew he was friends with Rabbi Steinberg. We knew he was involved in some really interesting stories—tales of a magic staff separating water, of a tower that stretched to the sky, of a father about to kill a son, stopped by an angel.

Sometimes, Rabbi Steinberg would take the Torah out of the ark. We’d all have to stand up. He would walk around the room, and we’d reach our siddurs out to the aisle, touch them to the Torah, and kiss the book. Other times, we’d have to stand on our tip toes and chant kadosh, kadosh, kadosh. We knew the words meant holy, but we didn’t know what holy meant.

 

I met Josh on a park bench. It was one of those ferociously cold winter days, yet the sun wouldn’t stop shining. I’m not quite sure why, but I wanted to be out in the frozen air, so I was reading in the sun and squinting. He offered me a pair of cheap sunglasses.

It seemed like something that never actually happens in real life, so I went along with it. When he asked me what I did, I told him that I was a professional slacker. He understood that I was in graduate school.

I think I liked him instantly, which never used to happen. I’m not sure I can really explain it. It used to take me months to like potential suitors. We would go on five dates and I’d do weird things like wait two weeks to call them back or act like their conversational skills weren’t impressing me at all, and then as soon as they would write me off, I’d decide I was madly in love with them.

But Josh was different. It seemed like he talked to me because he genuinely wanted to talk to somebody, not because he was trying to hit on me. He was wearing a collared shirt and slacks with neatly parted gelled hair—all perfectly, disgustingly made up—but his footgear didn’t go with the rest of him. I must’ve liked the way his shoes were scuffed. I’ve never trusted anybody with clean shoes.

He was writing a book about Eskimos. It seemed like a luxurious thing to do. I pictured igloos, ice castles, palaces of hardened snow. And then I saw fairy tale princesses, swans in carriages, silver skates making stitches on ponds—I’m not sure why. It’s not like they had anything to do with Eskimos—I was just picturing some fantastical winter wonderland. When he told me the study was “anthropological in nature,” I thought of names: Inuit, Aleut. I thought of land bridges, animal furs, ice fishing. Of people who crossed the Bering Strait tens of thousands of years ago. Walking over Beringia, and ending up in a different continent. Did they even know they were leaving Asia behind?

I was writing a book about nothing. Eventually, it would have to be about something. It was unclear how much longer I could keep getting funded for my Ph.D. in history. I was interested in monarchial politics, the kings and queens of Europe. How they were pretty much all related, so at one point, all of the wars were really just family disputes on a worldwide scale.

He wanted to see if he could call on me for “my expertise in historical matters.” He said it like he knew it sounded ridiculous. I gave him points for that.

 

Before he died, my grandfather would come to our house every Friday night. We weren’t particularly observant, but we always celebrated Shabbat. I would help my mother bake challah—we’d mix the eggs and the oil, twist and braid the dough, watch the yeast rise, and brush it with egg whites. This was my favorite part—getting to use a paintbrush on food. It felt rebellious—like how I felt the time I snuck into the kitchen to try the yeast mixture while the dough was rising, thinking it would taste like raw cookie dough.

My mother would make roast chicken and carrots and string beans and chicken soup with matzo balls and noodles. We’d have chopped liver, which was creamy and sweet, and red wine for the adults and grape juice for me. I’d chant the blessing when my mother lit the candles, and I’d watch the fire leak light onto the table, orange in its glow.

After dinner, I’d help my mother polish the candlesticks and the fancy silverware we used just for Shabbat. We’d wash the lacy tablecloth we only used on special occasions. We’d have coconut macaroons for dessert, even if it wasn’t Passover. And when I was really young, my mother would sing and my father and I would dance, my feet atop his, spinning around and around until he twirled me up the stairs to my bedroom, and tucked me in before I went to sleep.

 

The second time I saw Josh it was snowing. We ducked into a coffee shop.

We pored over the chalkboard menus. I ordered something embarrassing. He paid.

We talked about caramel macchiatos.

__What are they? He asked.

I told him that they didn’t exist.

He seemed intrigued.

__Starbucks has bastardized the term. A macchiato is an espresso shot with a couple of dollops of foam. The drink that most people associate with a caramel macchiato is really just a caramel latte with vanilla syrup.

__So you have expertise in caffeinated beverages, too.

He said that. I didn’t correct him.

 

While I was in graduate school, going home became strange. Ever since my grandfather died, my family no longer did Shabbat dinner, we rarely went to the synagogue I grew up going to, and when we did, I hardly recognized any of the people or the tunes or the names. I used to love visiting: driving around the suburban streets, counting how many minutes it would take that one traffic light on Lakeview Ave to switch to green, wandering through Millers Park, swinging on the swings, dipping my shoes into the gravel, watching kids cup fresh mud in their small hands.

Now, everything feels even stranger. It’s like looking at your reflection in a mirror after getting a drastic new haircut—it takes a couple minutes to even recognize yourself. Despite the fact you know it’s you, and nothing has really changed, everything seems different, far more different than you could ever have imagined.

 

__Let me make you dinner, Josh said on the phone.

I paused for a minute, maybe two.

__Oh, no. The dreaded two-minute pause.

__What? I said.

__You’re trying to figure a way out of having dinner with me.

__Wow, so insecure.

He laughed.

__What can I bring? I asked.

__Nothing, he said. Just your company.

Later that day, I put on my snow boots and walked to his place. I looked at the trees covered in ice, counting as I passed them by: maple, spruce, elm. I stared at dogs being walked: golden retrievers, beagles, German shepherds. When I got to his apartment, and he opened the door, I found myself making another list: great smile, witty sense of humor, warm, bellowing voice.

__Greetings, I said.

__Salutations, he laughed. Won’t you come in?

I did. He led me to the table, but nothing was on it. I sat down.

__So we’re having an invisible dinner?

__Clever, he said. But not quite.

He poured some wine, handed me a glass. Then I followed him into his living room.

There was a picnic blanket on the floor, topped with candles and fresh cut flowers in mason jars. There was salad and steak and orzo with feta and grape tomatoes. It was all of my favorite things. I couldn’t remember mentioning them to him.

We started eating.

__How’s your dissertation going?

It wasn’t going well. In fact, I was starting to think that it didn’t matter at all anymore.

__Fine, I told him.

__I’d love to read it when you’re done.

__As soon as you show me your Eskimo manuscript.

He laughed.

__I’m afraid to show it to you, with all of your historical and research and writing experience. Besides, you’ll totally hate the part about how ancient aliens came to Alaska and Canada and invaded the native peoples and then their descendants became the Inuit and the Aleuts.

__Oh, okay, I smirked.

__See, this is exactly what I was afraid of. You laughing at my belief in ancient aliens. A guy can’t show his crazy this early in a relationship.

__Oh, so this is a relationship?

__I sure hope so. He laughed. Then he got up to go to the kitchen, where he stayed for five minutes.

__Josh?

No answer. I heard a machine.

__Have you been taken? Are they here?

He came back in.

__Funny, he said. He handed me a mug.

__What’s this?

__Oh, the ancient aliens came and made some caramel macchiatos. I thought you might like one.

I said nothing, and just grinned.

 

Before Josh, there was Ryan and Aaron and Jeb, all musicians: guitarist and bassist and saxophonist.

I had a habit for dating inappropriate men. Men who were too young, too old, too unemployed. Too into alcohol, cocaine, heroin. Too Morman, too Jewish, not Jewish enough.

They were baristas and college drop outs, exotic pet trainers and moving men—but if you were to ask any of them, their “true calling was music.” Josh worked at an app company. He seemed somewhat successful. He didn’t make me feel embarrassed walking down the street with him, even when he took my hand, switched our glasses (we had the same prescription, oddly enough) and insisted on waltzing through the sidewalk. Then he’d walk me to my door—not to my building entrance, but to my actual apartment door—without ever expecting to come inside. He’d kiss me slowly, slide his fingers through my hair, and then he’d tip his imaginary hat to me before leaving. Granted, he only did this a handful of times, because we only went out a handful of times. And then the last time, he simply said “he was falling for me,” and would see me tomorrow.

 

Growing up, I had a new name every day. My parents couldn’t keep track, so they’d keep a list on the refrigerator. Lily, Chloe, Olivia, Roxanne, Layla, then back to Ophelia, which is actually my name.

I couldn’t understand how I had to commit to just one thing, one name, one identity. I wasn’t sure why I had to choose, why it was so important, why it mattered at all.

I don’t remember settling on Ophelia, but I must have finally accepted the name I was given.

 

My mother has developed an obsession with Ancestry.com. It started as a hobby, something to pass her newly retired time with. Now, there are lists of potential relatives all over her computer screen. There’s a photo of the house my grandfather lived in as a toddler in Queens, the church my great grandmother was baptized in in Irvington, New Jersey. This brought up questions: my great grandmother was baptized? We knew one leg of the family was non-practicing Irish Catholic, but to be baptized? It seemed like a serious lapse in familial knowledge.

Then there are the passenger records of ships from Galicia docking in New York with names like Clara and Haskell and John. In school, my friends’ families came from places like India and Romania and Switzerland. Everyone in my family was fourth generation Newark, New Jersey. We had to go back a fifth generation for any sort of cultural identity, which always turned out to be Galicia, a place that no longer exists.

There is a myth in my family, that my father’s grandfather was a British pirate. I may have been the one who started it: his name was John and he was from England and I was in sixth grade reading Treasure Island, so I convinced myself that he was Long John Silver. I eventually realized this wasn’t the case, but I still thought I had “this much” British in me. So, I started speaking in an awful English accent for a full month. Nobody—not my mother or my father or the very grandfather whose father I bestowed the pirate identity onto—had the heart to correct me. It turned out that the British side was really from Galicia, too.

There is another myth in my family, about being Irish on my mother’s side. My grandmother spent years telling us she was Irish. I took to studying Celtic myth, Irish folk songs, Gaelic. But my mother sorted through the archives of huge steamships and censuses and churches and temples and street addresses, and it turned out that the Irish part of the family had actually originated in Galicia, too.

I asked her about this Galicia, which was not to be confused with the one in Spain. She told me it no longer existed. I didn’t understand how a place could physically be there but not, how a place could be called something else. She told me my great great grandparents lived in what is now Poland or Ukraine. But back then it was Galicia. They were Eastern European, Ashkenazi Jews. They spoke Yiddish, not Polish. When they got to America, they settled in Brooklyn, Manhattan, Newark. They married other people from Galicia. They cooked corned beef and cabbage and kreplach and worked as seamstresses and mechanics and food purveyors. They had kids who forgot their language, their cooking, their culture. They were part of a world that forgot their country existed.

 

Josh never saw me tomorrow. On his way back from walking me home, an icicle fell on his head. They say in Russia, 100 people die a year from falling icicles. They can impale you, like a dagger—even in America. I read about it in the local daily newspaper.

It seemed like an impossible thing: death by sharp snow. I knew he had a thing for ice and igloos, so I wondered if his death was poetic, if he would have approved. I didn’t even know him, not really. But I put on a nice black dress and stared at his open casket and thought about giving my condolences to his parents, who I didn’t know and didn’t know me. But I knew that it was all my fault that he was dead, that he never would have walked that way if he hadn’t been walking me home. So I left without talking to anyone and got myself a caramel macchiato, because the drink didn’t exist and Josh didn’t exist and where I came from didn’t exist, so what did any of it matter?

 

My mother used to sing in the choir at temple. She wore these long cream robes and sat with the other members in stiff-backed chairs to the left of the rabbi and cantor’s podiums. I’d sit in the first row, waiting and waiting until her solo. Her voice sounded clear and sweet and she didn’t even need a microphone to project like the others.

Other people would follow her in their siddurs or song sheets, reading from the back to the front, from right to left. It was confusing for me, all these languages I grew up hearing: English and Hebrew and Yiddish, two you read left to right, the other right to left. I started reading my English books from back to front and my Hebrew books from front to back.

For a year in Hebrew school, I stopped reading along in the services. It was easy enough to memorize the prayers and songs, so I did: the Mourner’s Kaddish, the Mi Shebeirach, the V’ahavta. I could say them in Hebrew: Yit’gadal v’yit’kadash sh’mei raba, Mi shebeirach avoteinu m’kor habrachah l’imoteinu, V’ahavta et Adonai eloheha. I could say them in English: You shall love the lord your God with all your mind with all your strength will all your being.

But when my mother sang, I didn’t sing with her. I just watched her gracefully open her mouth, look at the congregation, and let the words, all the words, flow out.

 

I was sitting in the graduate school library, the night before my dissertation draft was supposed to be submitted to my committee. It was dark outside, so I couldn’t see the sky. I just kept staring at the lamps on the desks, made to look like old-time oil lamps, despite the fact that they were clearly electric.

My computer screen was blank. Completely. I tried to remember why I was interested in all the Henrys and czars and princesses. I couldn’t think of anything.

Then I made a list.

Con: Loss of academic integrity and/or career. Sense of doing something very wrong. Not allowing myself to reach my potential.

Pro: It would be written and I would be done. No more incessant stress and pressure. Everyone does it, everything we do or write or think is merely a copy of something else, so what would it matter anyway?

 

When I took the train to my parents’ house after Josh’s funeral, they didn’t know that I’d be staying there for good. They picked me up at the station, all happy and laughing and “great to see you!” I evaded their questions: How long are you staying? Are you seeing anyone special? How’s the dissertation coming along?

A list of these truths would look like this: indefinitely, I might’ve been but he died from an icicle attack, and not so well, mostly because I got kicked out of grad school for plagiarizing.

 

The therapist my parents are making me see has taken quite an interest in my listmaking. We have talked about medicines: Zoloft, Lexapro, Klonopin. We have talked about exercise regimens: adult soccer leagues, master’s swimming programs, yoga. We have talked about Henry VIII’s lesser-known wives: Anne of Cleves, Kathryn Howard, Katherine Parr.

He uses the wives to get me talking history, my dissertation, about “my next step” which is really a veiled way of talking about my “misstep.” He is trying to understand why I plagiarized. I wish him luck, as I am still trying to figure it out.

I think back: there was my parents’ disapproval in my chosen field, their disbelief that it was a worthwhile degree. My advisor saying my funding was running out, that I had to finish this year. There was all the reading I had to do, from left to right, all the time I didn’t have. There was the phone call I got about my grandfather dying, how he slipped in the shower and my mother had to see him, sprawled, on the floor, after the assisted living called to tell her he was gone. There was the funeral, the eulogy, the dirt I shoveled onto his grave. There were these words of mourning, words I’ve memorized since five but still know nothing of their meaning: Yit’gadal v’yit’kadash sh’mei raba. There was the fact that my parents put me on Lexapro at thirteen, because they thought I was too anxious. There was Josh and his Eskimos and blood-covered ice. There were two languages that were supposed to be dead, but resurged; there was a kingdom that was dead but its land still stood under peoples’ feet. There were the Habsburgs and the poor farmers and tailors from Galicia and the Torah stories, the fact that Jacob’s name changed from Ya-ah-kov to Yisrael. There was the fact that, when you really think about it, all of this has happened before and will happen again and so what does any of it matter, really? There was too much to think about, the therapist noticed, so he said I should list it all out and come back next week.

 

A word about my grandfather’s funeral: he was old, ninety-one, so it wasn’t as tragic. He was always giving me fifty dollar bills to hide in my wallet “in case of an emergency.” I called him once a week, sometimes more, and we all had a running gag about keeping him on the phone. The standing record was three minutes, although the rest of my family didn’t believe that I had achieved such a feat. My grandpa just wasn’t good on the phone—he’d rather come over and see you, talk to you in real life.

He used to bring us Portuguese rolls, soft and fluffy and fresh and warm from the bakery’s oven. My father talked about this and his generosity while he eulogized him. Before that, they asked if I wanted to see him. My mother warned me that it would be the last time I looked at him, and I had never seen a real dead body. I didn’t think I wanted to remember him like that, like a mannequin, so I never saw.

We said the Kaddish and my feet hurt from my heels and I couldn’t think about anything but the way my grandfather used to pick me up on his shoulders as a toddler, bounce me up and down and tell me he was sending me to the moon. I wondered if he thought it was funny that I loved it so much, that I told my friends in school I had been to the moon plenty of times, that I was practically an astronaut, that I space traveled in my rec room every Saturday morning.

I still wonder if I should have looked at his body when I had a chance, to see his remains. We closed the casket because thousands of years have taught Jews that open caskets are tacky, disrespectful. I just thought they were weird, but maybe I was wrong. Maybe I needed to see what was left of him, to feel his death was real, to acknowledge that he no longer existed like the place where his grandparents came from, but still, still was there.

 

My mother takes me to see her manicurist, Olga, who she’s been going to since I was three. I remember hiding under her table, stealing the polishes my mother wanted and scooting around on the floor to the other manicurists’ stations, switching the colors. She would paint my nails for fun and for free and I liked the way it looked but hated the way my lacquered nails felt.

Olga hasn’t seen me in years, maybe two, maybe four, but she hugs me tight and hands me bags of Polish chocolate, candies with names like Paluszki and Chalwa and Pawetek. They taste like milk and nougat and cocoa, and I think about how Olga moved here from Poland thirty years ago. She may have even lived where my ancestors lived, where Galicia was and is not anymore.

When we leave, my mother reminds me to write a thank-you note. I ask if I can call instead. She looks at me knowingly, and I think she wants me to be ashamed that I can only write things that are meaningless: lists of couples I know and colleges I’ve visited and particular categories of people—Jewish girls from camp, Jewish girls from high school, names that I made up.

I know she saw my trash can, with at least fourteen crumpled pieces of paper stuck inside. They were crinkled almost beautifully, like weird origami figures that were only halfway made. I know she saw the etches of writing on them, black scribble against an otherwise white background. She probably opened them, saw list upon list of random names.

I know she is furious, concerned about my sanity, trying to understand why someone who was having so much trouble writing that she needed to plagiarize her dissertation can now not stop writing lists of names that do not matter in the slightest.

I see her think about this, and she tells me I don’t have to write a thank-you after all, that I can give Olga a call.

 

In Hamlet, my namesake goes mad and starts singing songs and listing flowers and herbs: rosemary, pansies, rue. She tells people they’re for remembering, thoughts, regret.

There is a book my mother loves, a psychological manual for teen girls, called Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls. It was written after I was born, but my mother always fancied herself a psychologist, so she tells people that’s what she named me after.

It was a pretty tragic name to give someone, I thought, which is what I told my parents in middle school. My father said he liked the way it sounded: Oh-fee-lee-ah. He heard wind chimes and bird calls in the four syllables, musical notes like my mother’s singing voice.

I used to climb a willow tree in our backyard, and my mother found it ironic, considering Ophelia fell off a willow tree into a brook and drowned. There was no water underneath our tree, so it seemed I was safe.

I’d think about what it might mean to drown, to fall into water, to not be able to push your way through, to feel like liquid was that thick. I’d think about the flowers she had given out, the madness she had fallen into, the lucidity of it all. Then I’d wonder what it would feel like to drown from the smell of flowers.

 

I’ve started archiving the horticulture books and historical documents at the town library. I make piles of huge, dusty books and write down their names. They didn’t even ask me to do it—I just started and soon enough they saw and approved and I was doing inventory in the children’s section and the fiction section and for all the biographies, too.

There’s a room in the library, with glass walls and a door and steps and a floor and it looks like a bimah in reverse, with the stairs leading down to the platform instead of up. I used to sit there for hours when they had children’s programs like book clubs or story time or my-parents-work-so-I-have-nowhere-else-to-go-time.

Now I make my lists there, sitting on the floor in this great, wide space of carpet. They’ve offered me a desk but I’ve said no, preferring to feel the plush fabric on my skin. They leave me alone, for the most part. They appreciate the help. They like the lists.

 

My grandfather’s Yahrzeit is tonight, so we go to the synagogue and wait till the end of the service, when the rabbi reads the long list of names. When he says my grandfather’s name, I feel surprised. We’ve been waiting an hour and a half for just this one name, and then he says it, and it’s over, and the mourning, for the night, is done.

It’s a funny thing, the anniversary of a death. We light a candle for twenty-four hours. We say the Kaddish too many times. We wait an hour and a half to hear the one name we came for, then go to the Oneg and eat rugelach and fruit and drink soda and then leave.

My parents go home but I walk around. I pass the baseball field and the park, the middle school and the bus stop, the traffic light I have to wait a whole ten minutes at to even try crossing the street. I peer through cracks in the sidewalk, holes in fences, spaces in air. I am trying to fit it all together: the names and the lists and the deaths and the prayers.

I see lists everywhere: in the shadows of tree branches, the old street signs, the license plates on all the cars. There are deaths everywhere: in America and Israel and even Galicia, a place that technically no longer exists. I keep walking and sorting, speaking in three tongues. I think of my mother’s solo, how when there was an instrumental break in the song, the congregation stood up, one at a time, called on by the rabbi, and recited the names of their sick loved ones. Then I sing it: Mi shebeirach avoteinu m’kor habrachah l’imoteinu, and only later do I realize it’s the prayer for healing.

 

——————–

Cassie Title is an MFA candidate in fiction writing at Emerson College, where she teaches composition in the First-Year Writing Program, creative writing to high school students through EmersonWRITES, and works as a writing consultant in the Writing and Academic Resource Center. She graduated with a BA in English from Tufts University, and has written for Interview magazine.


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